Vietnam—Enduring Nearly 30 Years of War
As told by Nguyen Thi Huong
It was September 18, 1950, in Vietnam. The French army of occupation launched an attack against our resistance force of about a hundred combatants. We had just returned from a battle and had stopped to rest for a few days in the small village of Hoa Binh.
BORN in January 1923, I had grown up under French domination that had existed nearly a century. Now we were ready to sacrifice our lives for the liberation of our mother country. Our war for independence from French rule began soon after World War II ended in 1945. It had neither a front nor a specific battleground but was fought everywhere. Combatants took refuge in homes of villagers, where they were nurtured, loved, and cared for.
Now, fighter planes circled the village where we were, raking it with machine-gun fire. The inhabitants fled their homes, escaping to the rice fields. Others jumped into the river or into holes that the combatants had dug. As planes roared and bullets hissed, death was everywhere.
When the planes left, French gunboats circled in the rivers and fired on the embankments. They provided cover for the army coming to ransack the homes and to uncover the combatants’ hiding places, which were everywhere. Bursts of gunfire from all directions slaughtered the villagers, who fell in the fields, in the canals, in the gardens, their blood seeping into the earth of their mother country and fertilizing the rice fields, which the belligerent army trampled upon.
During the night, our fellow combatants dug holes along the embankments of the rivers. There they hid and waited. Early in the morning, the enemy boats patrolled, raking the embankments with gunfire and moving ever closer to the ambush. Suddenly, bursts of fire from guns of all kinds cut down the French soldiers in the boats. Their guns and munitions were quickly confiscated. Then the combatants fled in haste through the gardens and between the houses to escape the cannon fire that was sure to follow. We combatants would always run before our enemies but remain close enough to be ready to kill them, to drive them from our land.
A Promise to God
After six days of hide-and-seek encounters with the enemy, our resistance force was ordered to dissipate. My husband, his two brothers, and I discussed our situation. Since I was five months pregnant, I could not keep up with the combatants in their long and perilous escape. So we decided to hide ourselves separately the next day, with whoever survived taking care of the children.
That night was probably the longest and scariest of my life. Under cover of darkness, the inhabitants of Hoa Binh returned to their homes and collected their belongings, piling them in their sampans. The cry of fowl and pigs blended with the cries of children. I watched the sampan convoy move out like a long serpent. Pushed by the fast current, it was quickly out of sight. In the menacing silence, I thought of my three children far away with their grandparents. I placed a hand over my belly and felt the baby’s life in my womb. I could not restrain a shudder. The thought that certain death seemed imminent was like a dagger in my heart.
Early the next morning my husband left, saying he would return. But he didn’t. The sun was already high in the sky, and bullets clattered against the brick walls of the house we occupied. We fled into the nearby rice fields, but my brothers-in-law, fearing capture, left me far behind. Bullets struck everywhere around me, and I feared what would become of me in the brutal hands of the soldiers.
“My God, have pity on me!” I cried. “I am pregnant, and I have lost my husband. Show me the way out of this hell!” As I prayed, tears ran down my cheeks, bitter on my lips. When I raised my eyes, they were drawn to a hut a long way off. “Oh, my God, give me strength to walk,” I prayed, “because I am exhausted.”
With great effort I made it to the hut. As I sat on the ground inside the hut, my hands crossed over my bosom, my head lowered, I swore to God: “I offer my life to serve you, oh, God, if you will help me to get out of this hell so that I can see my husband and children again.”
In the afternoon, as the bullets struck with more and more regularity, other people ran toward the hut. There were now seven of us. In the distance, we could see smoke rise from burned houses. The French were not far from us.
Late in the afternoon, as the cannon explosions came closer and closer and the machine-gun fire became more intense, those in the hut fled to the rice fields and scattered in all directions. But what did I see? A single person running toward the hut. In spite of the bullets, I stood there trying to identify the silhouette. It was my husband! “How do I thank you, God?”
When my husband reached me, I asked: “Why did you abandon me?” He replied that he had found a man seriously hurt, and he had to look for a place to hide him and take care of him. Bullets continued to strike all around us, but since darkness was fast approaching, we knew the French would soon discontinue their attack.
The moon lighted our path in our flight across the rice fields and through the water and the mud. At about two in the morning, we arrived at the village and saw the burned and ransacked houses. Two months after this series of attacks, we read in a report: ‘Of the more than one hundred women and girls taken captive and retained by the French on their gunboats, more than 20 became pregnant.’
Two years later my husband was killed by the French. Our infant daughter was then 20 months old. After my husband’s death, I left our native village of Binh Phuoc to get established in the nearby city of Vinhlong. I looked for work to support my four children, all of whom were now with me again, the oldest being nine. I became an elementary-school teacher. Independence from France was won shortly thereafter, in May 1954.
I Did Not Forget
I always remembered the debt I owed to God, and I searched for him. When I was a child, I had often gone to a pagoda near our house. My younger sister and I found amusement in looking at the great belly of the Buddha seated there. He was laughing with his mouth wide open. How many times I had poked my finger in his mouth and withdrawn it just in time for my sister to say, “He bites!”
Now I returned to that pagoda as a suffering creature who was indebted to God. I was hoping to find something higher, mightier, and more sacred; something that I had perhaps ignored during my youth. Here believers bowed before the image of Buddha, and priests and priestesses recited incomprehensible prayers in a monotonous tone. I felt completely disappointed. But I returned to talk with a priestess, who spoke about Buddhism and the restrained life at the pagoda. I did not feel encouraged. The books she gave me to read had a Hindu flavor that I did not understand at all.
Catholicism, introduced to Vietnam by French missionaries in the 1600’s, was another prominent religion of the country. But it did not attract me at all. The repulsive behavior of representatives of the church, their mixing in politics and seeking power and riches, turned me away.
During sleepless nights, I would pray to God for help to show me the way to know him. I remembered my parents’ teaching about the Creator. They had an altar in their front yard to show their respect for and fear of him. It consisted of a pillar with a piece of wood on it that was big enough for a jar for rice, one for salt, and a bowl for burning incense each evening and morning. Whenever they had good food, they offered it to him and prayed to him to accept it.
We called the Creator Troi, which means “the Most Powerful.” To warn disobedient children, people would say to them, “Troi will kill you.” There were no documents about the Creator, but we feared him and kept doing good. We prayed to him for help in time of distress and thanked him after being helped. Surely, the God that I was looking for should be the Creator! But how could I find him? How? How? This question obsessed me. Oh, I felt so guilty for not being able to find the true God so that I could serve him and pay my debt!
After our independence from the French, our country was divided once more. This gave the superpowers a chance to intervene again, and a war between the North and the South of the country began that lasted nearly 20 years, until April 1975. With the advanced technical warfare capabilities of the intervening superpowers, the destruction was beyond human comprehension.
Almost daily, thousands of soldiers and civilians were dying—in rice fields, at work, at the market, at school, in their beds. Children in their mothers’ arms were condemned to starvation in their hiding places. About two million Vietnamese combatants were killed, as well as countless numbers of civilians. The corpses, if they had been piled up, would have reached to the tops of the mountains. Many millions more were wounded and maimed. Some ten million South Vietnamese, or about half the population, were made refugees by the war.
My children had grown up and were forced to take up military duties to fight their brothers in the north. During sleepless nights, when the cannons’ echoes could be heard as far as the city, my heart pained and I would pray for my country’s peace and for my children’s safety.
In 1974, when the war was nearing its end, one of my sons and his troop of more than a hundred were surrounded and forced to live underground for three months. Only five of them survived, including my son. After five years of combat, my three sons came back alive and well. My daughter also survived the fighting. When the war was over, it was a complete victory for the communist North over the South.
Under Communist Rule
Then came the communists’ revenge on all who had served the government of the South. They, according to the communists, were responsible for the nearly 20 years of war between the North and the South. A million were put in prisons. These were built in the forests by the prisoners themselves, who were condemned to the harshest of treatment. Many died from lack of food and medicine, and especially from overwork. They were given only a little rice each week, with very little meat. And the work assigned was beyond their capacity.
If the work was not done, the prisoners had to stay until it was finished. Sometimes their work area was about five miles (8 km) from the camp. So it would be very late when they returned. They got only a few hours’ sleep and then had to return to work the next day. As time passed, their health deteriorated and many died. Many others committed suicide. My sons underwent these same hardships.
Since the communist government could not provide the needs of a million prisoners, under a cloak of humaneness, they allowed the families to visit each month and bring food. We, the parents, the wives, and the children of the prisoners, doing what was expected, thanked the communist government for allowing us to feed them, to prolong their lives. With a million men imprisoned, some five million people were directly affected.
I had given up my job in order to care for my sons, and my daughter was a help to me. The boys were constantly being transferred from one camp to another—farther and farther away. So by all means of transportation—by foot, by automobile, by sampan—I brought to the camp each month about 33 pounds (15 kg) of dried food. I often carried it, walking in mud or over slippery roads.
When I reached the camp, I could see my sons for only two hours. We didn’t talk very much. The words would hardly come from our lips, since we were in such distress. We had to hold back our tears. Their poor physical appearance revealed their hardships. Despite our efforts, they were always hungry because they shared their food with those whose relatives had died, had fled the country, or were too poor to bring anything.
For more than 30 months I brought food to my sons, and many others did the same for theirs. We looked like a great crowd of beggars, with dirty clothes, a big basket in our hands, and our big hats made of palm leaves almost hiding our faces. In the heat and the rain, we stood at bus stations and at boat stops. I sold all that I possessed, including our property, to buy food. In extreme poverty, I called to God to save my children from such a hell. Finally, after nearly three years, they were liberated.
[Blurb on page 16]
I feared what would become of me in the brutal hands of the soldiers
[Blurb on page 19]
My son and his troop were forced to live underground for three months
[Picture on page 17]
I had often gone to a pagoda in Vietnam where believers bowed before the happy Buddha, similar to this one
[Picture on page 18]
People bringing food to prisoners of war, just as we did to our sons imprisoned after the war
U.S. Army photo
[Picture Credit Line on page 15]